Retethering: The Timelessness of Pearls in the “Post-Pandemic”

June 18, 2024 |

Hansel Tai, Baroque Pearl Pierced  Pendants, 2023, Baroque pearl, sterling silver, surgical steel piercings
1 in. (pearl) x 20 in. (chain)
Photo by the artist
Hansel Tai, Baroque Pearl Pierced Pendants, 2023, Baroque pearl, sterling silver, surgical steel piercings 1 in. (pearl) x 20 in. (chain) Photo by the artist
Schena_Rebecca_Headshot

Rebecca Schena

Rebecca Schena is a San Francisco—based jeweler, writer, and aspiring maximalist. She has contributed to publications such as Current Obsession, Making Progress, and Powerclash, and holds a BFA in Jewelry and Metalsmithing from Rhode Island School of Design. Rebecca is interested in jewelry as a method of initiating political discourse and as a way of expressing, manipulating, or distorting social identity. (rebeccaschena.com)

Just as I was wrapping up the research for this article and preparing to finally sit down and write, my grandmother, Rita (whom we call Ammah), caught COVID after evading it for over three years. As I write this, she’s been transferred to hospice and may die of complications from the disease, as have so many before her.

Again and again, in my research into the history and recent resurgence of pearls, I’ve come across stories of matrilineality, femininity, legacy, and inheritance. And again and again, I’ve admired these stories with a warm but detached interest. But now, as I’m preparing to mourn a much more significant loss, I’m also mourning the loss of the faded, time-crushed, red velvet jewelry box that Ammah stored her pearl necklace in. A pearl necklace I never saw her wear, nor express fondness for.

Amid our panicked, midlockdown rally to downsize all of her earthly possessions into one bland room at an assisted living facility, I’m pretty sure I stashed the pearl necklace in the Ziploc bag holding her costume jewelry and smooth, cold, beaded bracelets.

But the box is long gone—as is the certificate of authenticity she kept tucked inside it for decades, in preparation for the valuable antique being passed down to the next generation. “Make sure to sell the rugs,” she’d insisted over a FaceTime call. “The breakfront cabinet is worth a lot.” None of us had the heart or the spine to confess that her prophesized heirlooms had gone out of style.

I keep picturing the jewelry box in the sea of objects we didn’t have time to sort, decades of hope for stability discarded—both Ammah’s and my family’s.

I share my own story here not for morbidity or melancholy but to express some of the comfort I’ve felt in viewing this fraught experience as just one story in a shared legacy stretching back thousands of years.1 In the millennia that humans have spent tangled up in pearls, we’ve imbued them with practically every complex, contradictory meaning we could squeeze into their iridescent layers: birth, death, power, delicacy, virtuosity, greed, timelessness, impermanence, sensuality, chastity, naivety, elegance, abundance, exploitation. The pearl has taken on these roles with the quiet competence of a Rorschach test, filtering and refracting our sentiments back to us.

The history of pearls is filled with glowing accounts of their mythical origins. In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, Aphrodite/Venus enters our human world as a pearl does: soft, lustrous, and smooth, swaddled in her shell.2 In his Natural History IX (circa 77 ce), Pliny the Elder states that pearls are formed when, during their mating season, oysters rise to the surface of the sea, open their shells as if to yawn, and are impregnated by dew.3 In discussing pearls’ talismanic properties, the editor of the Samhita portion of the Atharvaveda (circa 600 bce) refers to a similar myth in Hindu tradition in which pearls originate from the transmutation of raindrops falling from the moon and into the sea.4 In Urashima Tarō, a Japanese folktale from the eighth century ce, the eponymous protagonist is carried by a turtle to the pearl- and coral-encrusted Dragon Palace, where he is gifted a cursed jewelry box that ages him.5

Pearls in classic art: François Lemoyne: Cleopatra, circa 1725. Oil on canvas. 40.5 × 29 in. | Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis; John Bacon the Elder: Model of Queen Elizabeth I, ca. 1780. Coade stone with traces of blue/gray paint. 21½ × 13 × 8 in. | Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Sea Creatures Entertain Urashima Tarō and Oto Hime in the Dragon Palace, ca. 1847. Wood block print. 14 × 29 in. | Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Current conceptions of the pearl in popular culture and contemporary jewelry rely on equally exaggerated “historical” accounts. Cleopatra was said to have dissolved her pearl earrings in vinegar and drunk them in one gulp to display power over Marc Antony. Reports of the pillaging of Termez during Genghis Khan’s 1220 siege of the city include horrific details of the Mongol army eviscerating civilians en masse in search of pearls they believed the populace had swallowed for safekeeping.6 The “Virgin Queen,” Queen Elizabeth I, was known to wear armor-like quantities of pearls to signify her virginity and purity.7

These myths and histories—emphasizing transmutation, time, and feminine power—reflect the unsettling strangeness of pearls. They are the only gem birthed from nature fully formed, in no need of human intervention such as carving or faceting. To use the terms coined by renowned jewelry historian Marjan Unger, pearls can pass from the “underworld” of mineral ore into the “upper world” of conceptual meaning without so much as being washed of their slime.8 As Petra Class, jeweler and cocurator of the exhibition Restringing the Pearl, told me, pearls are not “stones of the Earth,” but are an animal byproduct like a tusk. Their softness and vulnerability drive us to “dissolve and reinvent them” again and again.9

Hansel Tai. Pierced Pearl Rope, 2023. Baroque pearls, sterling silver, surgical steel piercings. No dimensions given | Photo by the artist.

Today we know that natural pearls are not formed by the crystallized tears of assorted gods—nor around a particularly irritating grain of sand. We now understand that natural pearls are formed through “biomineralization” spurred by parasitic invaders running roughshod into the fleshy inner mantle of a mollusk, dragging nacre-producing cells from the outer mantle of the mollusk with them.10 There, the cells excrete nacre—a compound made of calcium carbonate and conchiolin, a protein glue—in thousands of microscopic layers around the parasitic invaders, forming pearls. Evidence of these parasitic interlopers is visible in the knobbled surface of Oviduct Necklace by Dutch Vietnamese jeweler Nhat-Vu Dang. Dang envisions them as “seeds entering a womb” to form a “talisman to receive and conceive new ideas and worlds.”11 Even if one knows that luster is “merely” light refracting through an imperfect mineral matrix, beholding the color shifting in a mabe pearl or the divine glow emanating from a classic white pearl is no less captivating.

While the unsettling corporeality of pearls—with their flesh-like glow, supple surface, and gestation-like formation process—links them to birth, artists have also used them to represent mortality and corpore al fragility. Catholic reliquaries and Victorian-era mourning jewelry often deployed pearls alongside literal or figurative body parts as part of the tool kit for mournful devotion. In his recent work, the Chinese-born, Estonia-based jeweler Hansel Tai has adapted his signature stone-piercing technique to pearls. Tai’s pierced pearl series features gorgeously plump baroque pearls punctured by industrial barbell piercing jewelry—each puncture expertly nestled into skin-like folds and bulges. The resulting pieces almost make your skin crawl: viewers might recoil in sympathy for the fleshy pearls being pierced so intrusively. One cannot help but speculate as to what purpose each of these pearlescent organs may serve in the body of a larger, imagined creature. Japanese jeweler Shinji Nakaba carves pearls into memento mori, forming exquisitely detailed body parts, skulls, and insects. His Omnia Vanitas [“all is vanity”] necklace, constructed of twenty-one carved pearl skulls bound together by a crudely fashioned steel wire, alludes to the lurking omnipresence of death and the ultimate inconsequentiality of life.12 While Tai pierces naturally irregular baroque pearls as a stand-in for the soft, fragile human body, Nakaba modifies pearls via carving as a reminder of the transience of even the most luminous materials—the human body included.

Nhat-Vu Dang. Oviduct Necklace, 2023. Mollusk shell, pearls | Photo by the artist
Nhat-Vu Dang, Oviduct Necklace, 2023

Tongue-in-cheek, nostalgia-bomb jewelry brand JIWINAIA (by Marisa Jiwi Seok) takes a more irreverent approach to human fragility. JIWINAIA’s baroque pearl earrings are inlaid with images of COVID-19 viruses, heartbeats, and phrases like “for your health” and “numb.”

With the bisected pearls from her project Round and Flawless, Rotterdam-based designer Irma Földényi reveals how these lustrous little globes record time in their crystalline structure. They capture changes in their environment so precisely that it seems only proper that we use them to tether ourselves to time—from our first conscious moments at birth, to our final ones upon death, and to the legacy we leave in our wake. And so we wear pearls because our mother did, as did her mother, and hers before—a string of pearls stretching through time.

Irma Földényi. Round and Flawless, 2020–2021. Cultured pearl. No dimensions given | Photo by the artist

Pearls seem to be experiencing a Renaissance in the “post-pandemic,” taking center stage at the 2023 Met Gala in honor of Karl Lagerfeld and in collections from fashion brands like Moschino and ALAÏA and jewelry lifestyle brands like Beepy Bella and Susan Alexandra.13 Lin Cheung, artist and cocurator of the exhibition PEARL, traced the current trend to the rise of pearls “conversing” across historical collections, fashion, and contemporary jewelry—a conversation she was first introduced to by Pearls, a 2013–2014 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. While some brands have adopted pearls as one-dimensional symbols of sexuality or sophistication, many artists utilize the pearl’s associations with tradition, the body, femininity, and death in order to “retether” them to time.

Susan Alexandra. Rainy Bra, Helmstedt Spring Summer 2024 Collection | Photo: Emma Cheshire

In the isolation of the “deep pandemic” and the hazy years since, most folks I’ve talked to have mentioned feeling untethered to time. Entire years seem to have evaporated without a trace. I believe our current interest in pearls reflects a collective hope to regain some sense of continuity between the “before” and “after” of the pandemic by reinterpreting a symbolically complex yet familiar material.

Two recent pearl-centric contemporary jewelry exhibitions—both of which focus on themes of matrilineality, tradition, and mourning—demonstrate various artists’ approaches to the pearl’s multitudinous associations. Restringing the Pearl, curated by Petra Class and Biba Schutz, was exhibited at the Jewelry Library in New York City (April 27–June 6, 2023). PEARL, curated by Caroline Broadhead, Lin Cheung, Melanie Georgacopoulos, Maria Militsi, and Frances Wadsworth Jones, has been exhibited internationally in three iterations: at SEASON Gallery (as part of the London Design Festival, September 17–25, 2022) before traveling to PLATINA in Stockholm, Sweden (April 13–June 3, 2023), and then to ATTA Gallery in Bangkok, Thailand (August 9–September 17, 2023).

View of Restringing the Pearl installed at the Jewelry Library’s intimate Manhattan gallery space. | Photo: Aida Sulova. Courtesy of the Jewelry Library.

In each of the three iterations of PEARL, the artists have taken distinct approaches to retethering. London-based Greek artist and lecturer Maria Militsi’s photographic installation Pearl Sitters consists of dozens of found photographs of anonymous sitters (primarily women) wearing pearls. The images span decades of changing styles: some austere women gaze out from cabinet cards wearing a single delicate strand—while others, clad in legwarmers, don multiple chunky strands. Although most of the sitters are white (presumably wealthy) women—a reminder of who has historically been able to afford pearls and be photographed wearing them—gazing back at these pearl sitters places the viewer into a lineage of pearl wearers.

Maria Militsi. Images from Pearl Sitters, 2023. Found photographs | Photo: Caroline Broadhead

Jeweler Lin Cheung reinterprets the traditions of the classic pearl necklace, pearl studs, and pearlescent acrylic nails. While Pearl Chain and Keep Together Pin reinterpret jewelry-specific archetypes, her Glam Rock Rings poke warm fun at stereotypically feminine fake nails, which suggest how physical markers of femininity are passed down generationally. Each of the Glam Rock Rings—carved from rock crystal to mimic the shape of fake nails—comes with a bottle of pearlescent nail varnish to be applied to the crystal nails in a grotesquely funny ouroboros of life imitating art and art imitating life. One quickly loses track of whether either material, the pearl or the crystal, is worthy of the devotion we usually lavish upon both. Budapest-born artist Réka Lörincz, represented at the PLATINA iteration of the show, also adapts fake nails in Have a Pearl. This tabletop object features a silver dish overflowing with baroque pearls, which visitors are invited to help themselves to via a pair of tongs tipped by a set of neon-orange acrylic nails.

Reka Lorincz. Have a Pearl, 2022. Antique dish, freshwater pearls, fake painted nails.

The family-run silk textile producer Tamiya Raden, represented at the ATTA iteration of the show, takes a more subtle approach to tradition. Tamiya Raden is based in Japan’s Tango province, which is known for its 1,300-year history as a center of silk textiles. The company was founded by Katsuichiro Tamiya, who dedicated two decades to perfecting the technique of incorporating diaphanous threads of mother-of-pearl into his fabrics.14 The resulting tapestries, three of which were included in PEARL, are a glistening testament to the importance of passing down craft techniques through the generations.

The other exhibit, Restringing the Pearl, featured jewelry by seventeen artists—centering on the artists’ fraught experiences of inheriting family heirlooms. Displayed at the Jewelry Library’s intimate exhibition space, each piece appeared alongside scannable QR codes leading to recordings of each artist’s statement.15 Their stories shared fond memories of familial connection complicated by looming legacies of war, classism, environmental exploitation, and personal loss.

Petra Class. Hanging by a Thread, 2023. Pearls, silk thread | Photo by the artist

The idea for the exhibition originated from a conversation between curators Petra Class and Biba Schutz about their childhood memories of pearls and Class’s mother’s fragile health. Class detailed in her conversation with me her interest in the role pearl culturing had played in popularizing pearls and turning them into a symbol of female empowerment for mothers and of stifling gender roles for their punky daughters.

Sandra Enterline. Armatura Pearl Pendant, 2023. Pearls, oxidized sterling silver, 18 x 2½ x 2½ in. | Photo: Mark Johann

In their review of Restringing the Pearl for Art Jewelry Forum, Beryl Perron-Feller notes a distinction that is central to contextualizing the current resurgence of pearls. When debating their timelessness versus trendiness, Perron-Feller proposes that “pearls are timeless because they continue to be considered valuable even when they’re not fashionable. Their value is in what they represent.” Pearls may fluctuate in trendiness, but their symbolic malleability makes them uniquely suited to crafting coherent narratives from our murky, painful personal and societal experiences.

As we settle back into our bodies after a long period of pandemic-induced dissociation, we seek evidence that we haven’t ended up in some alternate timeline—disconnected from everything we knew. Because of the pearl’s timeless popularity as heirlooms and associations with mourning, health, and the body, some of us look to this familiar material to help us retether our bodies to time. The pearl offers warmth and nostalgia when all else seems to have come untethered.

Advertisement

Endnote

1. 1. Beatriz Chadour-Sampson and Hubert Bari, Pearls (London: V&A, 2013), 14.

2. Patrizia Ciambelli, “Colliers de perles. Transmission, circulation, mémoire du féminin” [Pearl necklaces. Feminine gender memory, transmission, circulation], Techniques & Culture: Itinéraires de coquillages [Itineraries of shells] 59 (July–December 2012): 78–95, https://doi.org/10.4000/tc.6554. 

3. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, vol. 9, chap. 54, ed. John Bostock and H. T. Riley, in the Perseus Digital Library, accessed August 27, 2023. 

4. R. A. Donkin, Beyond Price: Pearls and Pearl-fishing: Origins to the Age of Discoveries (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1998), 2. 

5. Cécile Maes, “The Pearl. The Origins of the Myth,” Klimt02, April 13, 2023. 

6. Fiona Lindsay Shen, Pearl: Nature’s Perfect Gem (London: Reaktion, 2022), 155.

7. Karen Raber, “Chains of Pearls: Gender, Property, Identity,” in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, ed. Bella Mirabella (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011). 

8. Marjan Unger-de Boer, “Jewellery in context” (PhD diss., Leiden University, 2010, Arnoldsche). 

9. Petra Class (cocurator of Restringing the Pearl), phone conversation with the author, September 7, 2023. 

10. Fiona Lindsay Shen, Pearl: Nature’s Perfect Gem (London: Reaktion, 2022), 16. 

11. Nhat-Vu Dang (@nhatvudang), Instagram post from May 16, 2023. 

12. Shinji Nakaba (@shinji_nakaba), Instagram post from August 23, 2023. 

13. Mina Le, “Reacting to the Met Gala’s ‘Colgate Carpet’ Looks,” YouTube video, published May 2, 2023. 

14. Tamiya Raden website, https://tamiyaraden.com.

15. Restringing the Pearl website, n.d. [2023], https://restringingthepearl.com.

Related Articles

Scroll to Top